Alan Caldwell, the pitmaster at Fargo’s Pit BBQ in Bryan, has been making great barbecue for fourteen years. And for all of those fourteen years, he has denied people access to his pit room. When he denied my first request to take a look at his pit, in 2010, he told me no. I didn’t believe him, but he was adamant, which shocked me. Ninety-nine out of a hundred barbecue purveyors that I have spoken with are more than happy to show off their pits. It is a point of pride for them. Caldwell, on the other hand, never relented. This led to some minor frustration for me, but I let it slide.
I was again rebuffed two years later. I told him I wanted to squash rumors that he was using gas, but Caldwell looked at me stone-faced and said no again, while assuring me that they weren’t using gas. “It’s all wood back there,” he said. He just wasn’t ready to show anyone the pit. I was puzzled, but that was good enough for me. You might think me naïve or gullible, but I believed him. That doesn’t mean I didn’t keep asking to see it.
Another barbecue blogger tried to get in the pit room in 2012. It didn’t go well. A commenter offered this:
My experience with bbq joints that refuse to show their pits is they’re cooking with gas, Southern Prides, Old Hickory’s, Cookshacks…
I might agree with him, but it’s hard to say, given the fact that I’ve encountered so few pitmasters (maybe three out of hundreds) unwilling to give up the goods.
There was more deep speculation early last year. Brisketman was angry about being denied a pit tour. He wrote “If I were going to guess, I’d say that Fargo’s probably uses a gas smoker.” Even that suspicion was called into question:
— Rob Daniel (@robdnl) April 2, 2013
I even opined with (unfounded) authority back in June:
Lunch at Fargo’s on the way out of Bryan. They’re using direct heat for at least part of the cooking process. pic.twitter.com/XPemrtCS3D
— Daniel Vaughn (@BBQsnob) June 27, 2013
It was starting to get silly, but Caldwell just wouldn’t budge. It seemed to me he could make it so much easier on himself if he just opened the door. It’s not like it kept me up at night, but I did wonder what he was hiding. So I asked him about it again during a July interview. He blurted out “It has a big longhorn welded onto the front of it.” Then quickly added “That is OFF the record.” To understand why that is an issue, let me offer a little context.
Fargo’s was in business for ten years before they started getting any sort of praise for their barbecue. They weren’t located in some secluded, sleepy town, but in Bryan, a sister city of College Station. Texas A&M in College Station has a student population of over 53,000, most of which are rabid supporters of Aggie sports. They love the Aggies just slightly more than they hate the University of Texas Longhorns. Fargo’s was just starting to get some traction with the locals when us bloggers started asking questions. The last thing Caldwell needed was to lose local support over a pit that resembled the logo of the rivals. It’s not like it was a gift from Mack Brown. The pit adornment wasn’t even designed as an homage to those Longhorns. Caldwell just thought a pit that looked like a bull was pretty cool. All it was missing was a set of truck nuts. Still, he didn’t want to risk losing the success he had just started to taste.
When Caldwell gave me a tour of the pits yesterday he seemed relieved to have his secret revealed. The doubters could now retreat. Two other offset pits were doing the bulk of the work for now until he enlarges the pit room. His trusty old brick pit, which oddly enough is mounted on a trailer, was gone for repairs. As we stood staring at that smoker, the silence was broken with Caldwell’s nervous laughter. I assured him that the locals wouldn’t be so fickle as to abandon him because of a pit with the head of a roping dummy. Please don’t prove me wrong.